Editor\'s Note: Rob Boston is assistant editor of Church & State. A veteran observer of the Religious Right, he is the author of three books on the topic, including Close Encounters with the Religious Right: Journeys into the Twilight Zone of Religion and Politics. This article contains his personal reflections on the recent Values Voter Summit.
Religious Right activist Gary Bauer surveyed the crowd of more than 2,000 activists gathered at the Hilton Washington Sept. 13 for the annual “Values Voter Summit” and made a shocking announcement.
“We have found in recent years at events like this,” he said, “that the left will sometimes send people into the room acting like they’re us to tape record what’s going on – so I want you to look around right now….”
I was sitting in the audience, so I looked around. At first glance, the guy sitting next to me looked all right – but then I noticed he wasn’t wearing an American flag lapel pin. Should I alert security?
Bauer wasn’t the only one to warn of dangerous spies during the Sept. 12-13 event sponsored by Family Research Council Action and other groups. During a Friday morning breakfast for clergy, Bishop Harry Jackson, a Maryland African-American pastor who works with the Religious Right, cautioned the movement’s foot soldiers to expect strong opposition, warning, “We have spies that are working against us. Even in this meeting, there may be some spies.”
Any spies who attended the event might be forgiven for mistaking its true nature. Although billed as a “pro-family” gathering, it would have been more accurate to call this year’s “Values Voter Summit” a collection of mean-spirited rants, delivered by a parade of ultra-conservative activists, against anyone who dares disagree with the Religious Right’s political agenda.
It also had the feel of a two-day rally for Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, an evangelical Christian. At times during the D.C. gathering, it was easy to forget that U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is actually heading the GOP ticket. His name was mentioned infrequently. Any use of Palin’s name, however, inevitably sparked a round a cheers and applause from the audience. Many attendees sported stickers reading “Palin Power” and “I ♥ Palin.”
The Religious Right’s Cult of Palin flourished without a personal visit from her. At the beginning of the event, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins announced that invitations had been issued to the McCain campaign and the Democratic ticket of U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and U.S. Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.). All four said they could not make it.
The invitation to Obama and Biden was strictly pro forma. FRC Action, a 501(c)(4) organization, is legally permitted to endorse candidates, and this year the group didn’t even pretend that the Summit was politically neutral. Although the rally was cosponsored by some 501(c)(3) organizations that may not legally endorse candidates, that didn’t stop numerous speakers from exhorting the crowd to do all they could to elect McCain and Palin, and abuse was routinely heaped on the Democratic hopefuls. (Summit cosponsors included Focus on the Family Action, the Alliance Defense Fund, the High Impact Leadership Coalition and American Values.)
Although both days were highly partisan, the two seemed somewhat different. Day one was turned over to the anointing of Palin and a detailed defense of charges that she has a thin resume. Day two had a harder edge, and while it still featured plenty of Sarah love, a generous dollop of Obama bashing was added to the mix.
Examples of the former were legion during day one. Right-wing radio talk show host Roger Hedgecock told the crowd he had planned to put a clothespin on his nose when he went to vote for McCain. Thanks to Palin, he said, he won’t have to.
“God bless Sarah Palin,” Hedgecock beamed. “This is the election where we reclaim America…. Sarah Palin is the change we’ve been hoping for, and she’s here now.”
Right-wing commentator Kate O’Beirne told the crowd that Palin “disrupts the media’s planned coronation of Barack Obama.” Blasting feminists as “scary,” O’Beirne said Palin could bring about “the long overdue death knell of modern feminism.”
Star Parker, an anti-welfare activist much loved by the Religious Right for incendiary rhetoric that she delivers through a screeching howl, accused media elites and leftists of “trying to mock our candidate.” Parker added, “The God-haters try to deceive us…. I really feel good about the place we are.” (For good measure, Parker blasted sending children to “these cesspools we call schools so that they can be indoctrinated by anti-Christian worldviews,” opined that people are poor because they’re not right with God and said taxing the rich to pay for social service programs is “a violation of the Scripture.”)
During the event’s closing banquet Saturday night, FRC staffer Gil Mertz, who served as emcee, laid it out for the audience.
“This is a spiritual battle,” he said, “and I believe and I think you will join with me, that we just need to cover Sarah Palin with prayer for the next 50 days against the spiritual forces of darkness. It’s just quite that simple.”
Certain juxtapositions seemed jarring to me but rolled past most attendees without a notice. Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, criticized same-sex marriage and, like some other speakers, noted that divorce is also a threat to families. Twenty minutes later, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich – who has twice admitted to adultery, been married three times and was reprimanded by the House in 1997 for his ethical lapses – took the stage to bash Obama and demand a return to traditional values.
Received like a conquering hero, Gingrich talked about how he and his third wife, who is more than 20 years his junior, are working on a video project about the nation’s Godly heritage.
With the crowd sufficiently worked up, it was time for the red meat. The event turned into an Obama-bash-a-thon, with speakers employing a kitchen-sink-full of Obama attacks: the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, “bittergate,” the Obamas’ mortgage and even the now-discredited “lipstick” flap.
William Bennett, former U.S. education secretary and “drug czar,” led off by asserting that “the country should be humbled at the prospect of John McCain being our next president.” He then lit into Obama and Biden.
Biden, Bennett charged, is a “standard Democratic politician” while Obama is soft on terrorism, friends with a domestic terrorist and insufficiently patriotic. Speaking of Obama, Bennett said, “You, sir, are just too ambivalent about the United States to become its leader” – a line that was greeted with a standing ovation.
Following Bennett, Bauer asserted that the leaders of Iran, Venezuela and the Palestine Liberation Organization want Obama to win but Americans do not. Predicting a GOP victory, Bauer shouted into the microphone so that his high-pitched voice would carry, “The White House is above his pay grade!” and implied that only McCain can stop plans by “Islamofascists” to drop a “dirty bomb” on Washington, killing hundreds of thousands. (For good measure, Bauer later blasted the separation of church and state, calling it “a lie.”)
Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity ridiculed Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention at a sports stadium in Denver whose stage had been decorated in Greco-Roman style, mocking the candidate as “Barack ‘Apollo’ Obama” and saying his main accomplishment is the ability to “read the words of others off a teleprompter.” (Ironically, during the Saturday banquet honoring Charles W. Colson, the ex-Watergate felon who founded Prison Fellowship, the stage was decorated with four Greco-Roman columns.)
Hannity made jokes about the sobriety of U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), who is battling a brain tumor that could be fatal. He led the crowd in yelling “No!” to a series of questions about Obama’s fitness to be president and concluded by remarking, “You have a choice. I’m pro-choice. I’m voting for John McCain and Gov. Palin!” (After announcing his intention to vote for McCain-Palin, Hannity promoted his upcoming interview with the Alaska governor.)
In between the partisan rants, the conference featured the usual parade of speakers who attacked legal abortion, same-sex marriage, public education and other Religious Right targets, mixed with plenty of triumphalist rhetoric.
The Rev. Jonathan Falwell, son of the late televangelist, assured the crowd that their movement is not dead.
“There are lots of people in the media today that would say the Religious Right is pretty much gone, it’s pretty much dead….,” Falwell said. “Well, to borrow the comments and the words of the eternal Mark Twain, the rumors of our death are greatly exaggerated. We are very much alive. We are very much excited about what we’re doing and we are very much looking forward to the future to continue to change our nation, to lead our nation back to where it began and where it came from.”
Continued Falwell, “We have seen the destruction of the family. We’ve seen God kicked out of the public square….We are united, not dividing.”
Actor Stephen Baldwin, a convert to evangelical Christianity, ranted about the evils of Hollywood – a city that has provided him with a comfortable living – and vowed to assail its walls.
“A majority of what [Hollywood] does is evil,” Baldwin said. “The culture is being terrorized by this evil spirit that is operating through these things. And now I gotta tell ya something – I’m sick and tired of it.”
The way to make America better, Baldwin asserted, “is to make more Christians.” He later asserted, “We are the hands of the Lord Jesus here in this room. I don’t know about you and I’m not trying to be dramatic, but I’m putting some boxing gloves on mine.” He urged attendees to begin “kicking butt for the kingdom of God.”
Former columnist Don Federer asserted that the world faces a “demographic winter” because there are not enough people, blasted women for using birth control and pined for the days when the average woman had six children.
“Remember when births weren’t controlled, and pregnancies weren’t planned?” he asked. “You married and you had children.”
Federer’s remarks dovetailed with rants by several speakers who insisted that tax funding to Planned Parenthood be cut off. The issue came up constantly. Anti-abortion activist Alveda King, niece of Martin Luther King Jr., went so far as to read a poem she wrote about the topic. (Sample lines: “Yes, the victory and freedom will come when you know/If our babies will live then Planned Parenthood must go.”)
Alan Sears of the Alliance Defense Fund, blasting the “imaginary wall of separation between church and state,” heaped abuse on the American Civil Liberties Union and its allies, telling the crowd, “In the ACLU’s America, public prayer is out and jail time for Christians is in.”
But, Sears insisted, the legal tide is turning, and the ACLU is starting to lose cases. He claimed that the ADF wins nearly 80 percent of the cases it files and vowed, “With God’s grace, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Two ADF attorneys, Benjamin Bull and Eric Stanley, spoke during a Saturday afternoon break-out session on church politicking. The duo attacked Americans United for Separation of Church and State for its work in this area, and vowed to sue the IRS to overturn the law barring church electioneering, to wild applause from the crowd.
Stanley and Bull asserted that tax exemption for churches is a constitutional right – even though that concept is mentioned nowhere in the Constitution – and insisted that the ADF’s efforts are not designed to help particular candidates.
Tracing the history of church involvement in partisan politics, Stanley noted that many pastors attacked Thomas Jefferson in 1800, and he mentioned the opposition that emanated from many pulpits in 1928, when New York governor Al Smith, a Catholic, ran for president. It apparently never occurred to Stanley that vowing to usher in a return of crude personal attacks and pulpit-based religious bigotry are perhaps not the best argument for ditching the IRS Code.
A few speakers coupled their calls for partisan political action with pleas for more prayer and fasting. Bishop Jackson, who spoke during the general conference as well as the pastors’ breakfast, even gently criticized President George W. Bush for not doing enough to stop same-sex marriage.
Jackson, who said he remains a registered Democrat even though he voted for Bush, told the crowd that Christians of their stripe must lead the way in changing America.
“Unless we declare what the change must be, it won’t happen correctly,” Jackson said. America, he asserted, faces deep spiritual problems, and he warned the crowd that some type of change will come, one way or another.
“The pressure of this generation is creating an opportunity that we can have a God-induced change or we could have a demonically inspired mess-up that could produce this change….We can go by revelation or tribulation,” Jackson said.
Colson echoed some of those themes during Saturday night’s banquet, calling for political action but cautioning attendees, “The curse of our times is to think there’s a political solution to everything. We should be involved in government, we should be doing our duty, our civic duty…but that’s not going to answer all the problems that we face as a people.”
Colson is increasingly viewed as a cultural warrior who demands that political leaders adhere to the proper “biblical worldview,” (as defined by Colson and his allies) but his remarks were somewhat subdued. Politicians, Colson said, are quite capable of promising more than they can or will deliver. He went so far as to deny that God has a special relationship with America, a view the Religious Right would undoubtedly blast as heresy had it been espoused by a liberal.
“If we want to see the culture transformed, all we gotta do is live out the Gospel; that’s how it’s done,” Colson said, adding that “God’s covenant” is not with America as a nation but with “the members of the body of Christ.”
“The blessing is so that by living obediently, you will let the world know that our God reigns,” Colson said.
Yet it seemed to me that the conference provided plenty of examples of people not living obediently or in a way unlikely to please their God. Consider the “Obama Waffles.”
This item – described as political satire – was sold for $10 a pop in the exhibit hall. The front of the waffle-mix box was decorated with an exaggerated, openly racist cartoon image of Barack Obama. The back contained an image of Michelle Obama and two more racially charged images of Obama, one in Muslim garb and one in stereotypical Mexican dress.
The vendor selling the waffle mix, Bob DeMoss of Tennessee, did brisk business until the FRC expelled him on Saturday afternoon (near the end of the event) after the Associated Press published a story about the product. An FRC spokesman said later the group did not know the item was so offensive – yet the giant booth plastered with huge photos of the box was impossible to miss among the more prosaic exhibitors.
Across the exhibit hall stood another booth that should have attracted attention but didn’t. Representatives of the Chalcedon Foundation, a California-based group that espouses “Christian Reconstructionism,” smiled as they passed out literature and signed up potential new supporters.
Reconstructionists are the most overtly theocratic faction of the Religious Right, embracing a vision of a “reconstructed” society where fundamentalists of their ilk work to pave the way for Jesus’ second coming by dramatically reordering the law and government.
They would abolish democracy and impose a harsh theocracy based on a narrow reading of the Old Testament’s legal codes. Under Reconstructionist rule, government becomes the enforcer for fundamentalism, and homosexuality, unchastity, blasphemy and worshipping “false” gods (among other offenses) would merit the death penalty.
There was a time when Religious Right groups seeking to portray themselves as “mainstream” would have kept the Reconstructionists at arm’s length. Their appearance at the FRC event is a sign that not only is the Religious Right not dead, its leaders are feeling so emboldened they will openly consort with radical movements.
I left the final event of the Values Voter Summit, the banquet for Colson, at 10:30 p.m. on Saturday night. As I walked into the humid air of the D.C. night, my head was swimming. Riding home on the subway, I found I could not focus on the book I had brought. Something was nagging at me.
It was this: I had spent two days observing the actions of “values voters” and listening to the mean-spirited, sarcastic and mocking speeches blasting forth from the podium. I watched as people cheered partisan vituperation, hate and name-calling. I heard entire classes of people demonized and made the subjects of scorn.
I watched as Religious Right activists who claim to extol “values” and “virtues,” applauded politicians who jump from one spouse to the next, broker shady deals and line their pockets.
I heard speakers tell lies – well aware that they were lies. I listened to incessant talk of “spiritual warfare” laced with all manner of military metaphors. I heard speakers malign good, decent and hard-working people like public school teachers, librarians and mainstream religious leaders.
I had even heard a popular cable news personality make fun of a U.S. senator who may very well be dying of cancer – and no one stood up to say, “That goes too far” or “Shame on you.” Instead, they laughed.
Yet these same people had judged me. They had judged my ethics and my morals. And they judged yours, too. They had judged anyone who dares to stand up to their repressive vision for America. They judged us, and they found us wanting.
My mind kept going back to something Chuck Colson said: “If we want to see the culture transformed, all we gotta do is live out the Gospel.”
Yet who in that room had been living out the Gospel for the past two days? I do not claim to be a theologian, yet I don’t believe the Gospel calls for hating your enemies, taking rights away from those whose lifestyle offends you or using a text many people consider sacred to divide an entire country along partisan lines.
Perhaps I misunderstood Colson, but I took his comments to mean that values voters should operate on such a high level ethically, morally and spiritually that non-fundamentalist Americans would observe their actions and seek to emulate them. In other words, conservative fundamentalists would lead by example as they sought to bring about religious revival.
If that was Colson’s point, he badly missed the mark by extolling the behavior of this crowd. After spending two days with them at the Summit, all I wanted to do was run as far away as possible from the “values” espoused by these voters.
To Gary Bauer, I would say: Yes, some of us from Americans United do attend the Values Voter Summit. We take some notes, and we tell the country about your plans. But we are not “acting like” you. In light of what I saw and heard at this year’s event, Gary, I consider that charge a major insult.